By Isa Lappalainen
The term “White fragility” was coined by Robin DiAngelo, professor in whiteness studies and critical discourse analysis at the University of Washington. The term describes a state where white people experience even a minimum of racial stress as intolerable. It occurs as a consequence of the high expectations of racial comfort that develop in environments that are insulated and protected from what she refers to as race-based stress. The state often triggers defensive moves like the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.
DiAngelo describes how racial belonging is reinforced on a daily basis through the whiteness that embeds essentially any situation or image that is assumed to be of value. Our heroes, standards of beauty, role-models, teachers, our textbooks, historical memory and the media are white. This means that white people feel a constant sense of belonging, and only very rarely does the color of white people’s skin cause them to feel out of place.
Coded vocabulary functions to establish racial comfort within groups of white people. Words such as “urban,” “inner city,” and “disadvantaged” for example, are used more often than “white,” “over-advantaged,” or “privileged”. This tendency helps to entrench the illusion that issues related to race are what “they” have, and not “us”.
Racial segregation goes widely unquestioned as long as it is not named or made conscious. Seeking “good schools” and “good neighbourhoods,” for example, is seldom thought of as a racial segregation seeking kind of behaviour, even if everyone knows that “white schools” and “white neighbourhoods” are really what is implied. DiAngelo argues that the perception of racial segregation as a gain rather than a loss “may be the most profound aspect of white socialisation of all”. Our maintenance of a fragile identity of racial innocence is reliant on the insistence that racial segregation “just happens.”
White people grow up to think of themselves as individuals instead of parts of a socialised group that relates to their skin color. In other words; white people are just people. Whites’ capability to see themselves as unique and original is, according to DiAngelo, reliant on an individualism that ignores how wealth and power have been distributed and accumulated to benefit white people over generations. Simultaneously, the denial of the prerogatives of whiteness also allows for the adoption of a universal reference point. This means that white people can represent humanity, while people of color are constricted to represent their own racialized experience (“workers” vs. “black workers”, “single mother” vs. “black single mother”). DiAngelo suggests that our interchangeable invocation of universalism and individualism allows us to deny white privilege and the significance of race. This is important as the link between the distribution of social resources and unearned white privilege would otherwise be undeniable.
While it is impossible to reject that whiteness comes with greater opportunities, the same goes for other factors like class and gender. This complexity makes the problem of unequal privilege difficult to address using concrete action plans; how do you isolate one factor from another? DiAngelo insists that we begin at the micro-level of analysis. Many white people today, she asserts, simply lack the psychosocial stamina to engage in issues as charged and uncomfortable as race. Talking directly about white power and privilege can be effective as it disrupts our usual discursive patterns. Without the capability of engaging in constructive discussion, equality still lies far away.
By Isa Lappalainen